October 21, 2004

Speak the part of speech I pray you, as I pronounce it to you

Today Emily and I have been having a heated discussion about what part of speech the word "snicker-snack" is in the line "The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!" (from "Jabberwocky", of course). She says it's an adverb modifying "went". I say it's the direct object of "went", and hence is a noun.

I argued that "snicker-snack" can't very well be an adverb, because there aren't any other verbs that it could modify. (Or other sense of "go" even -- "I went to the store snicker-snack"?) However, it is possible to sidestep this, because among the evidence for adverbialness, the OED includes this as part of their definition of "go": "10. In senses 8 and 9, with imitative interjections or verb-stems used adverbially, e.g. to go bang, clatter, cluck, crack, crash, patter, smash, snap, tang, whirr, etc." All props to the OED, but I find this pretty dissatisfying. These words can be adverbs, but only with the verb "go"? Why do we have to create a special rule just for this situation?

I much prefer Merriam-Webster's stance. They offer this definition as one of the transitive senses of "go": "to cause (a characteristic sound) to occur", and then gives the phrase "the gun went bang" as an example. If the verb is transitive, "bang" is a direct object, and a direct object is a noun (in this case, a noun meaning "the sound a gun makes -- you know, the one that sounds like 'bang' "). Easy. The gun went bang, the vorpal blade went snicker-snack. Noun.

And yet I cannot convince Emily of my position. What do you think, dear readers? Noun, adverb, or what?

Posted by Francis at 02:50 PM | TrackBack

Since "The vorpal blade went!" doesn't make much sense, I vote that "went" is a transitive verb. But IANAL (I am not a linguist).

Posted by: Doug Orleans at October 21, 2004 03:19 PM

What do the various references say about other characteristic sounds—bang, whirr, boing and so forth? That should be indicative of what their vorpalian counterpart would be.

Posted by: David. at October 21, 2004 03:21 PM

I tend to think of onomatopeia like this, used ad hoc, as interjections. As things get more elaborate, this makes more sense. Sure, we know that "go bang" means "to cause a bang," but it starts to make less sense when the sounds get wackier. "It went ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-freeeeeeeooooooo-zing!" That's a noun? It seems to make more sense with quotes around the onomatopoeia. But then, the usage of "to go" is equivalent to "to say". And of course, the bullet didn't "say" anything. It just . . . "went" it. So the sound is an interjection that gets incorporated into the sentence in the same way that a spoken statement would be.

But, hey, I'm sure the real linguists will be weighing in soon.

Posted by: Tablesaw at October 21, 2004 03:24 PM

Following up: Merriam Webster (NI3) lists the relevant meanings of bang, whirr, boing and ding as nouns. The only one of these that even has an adverbial listing is "bang," and the adverbial form of that is defined as "RIGHT, DIRECTLY, EXACTLY."

Posted by: David. at October 21, 2004 03:46 PM

OED: snicker-snack sni:krsnæ.k, sni;krsnæ:k, , adv. and sb. Also snickasnack. [Imit.: cf. snick-snack adv. and sb.] (With) a snipping or clicking sound.

I think the adverb argument is persuasive; if adverbs are "in a such-and-such manner", then the adverb form is simply snickersnack rather than as you would expect: snickersnackingly. Also, if the word wasn't so, I don't know, martial, it could well be used in other situations. The gardener with his shears meandered snicker-snack along the hedge. The kernels popped, snicker-snack, in the microwave. The giant bug crushed the helpless humans in its iron mandibles, snicker-snack.

Here's an unrelated question: say you're reading a library book, all unbeknownst-like, and you come across the phrase "piscine creatures of the sea". What should you do? Defacing the book seems wrong, but then letting some other poor sap come across it seems wrong as well. Writing "piscine creatures of the sea=FISH" in big crayon letters on a post-it and slapping the post-it over the page might help.


Posted by: Vardibidian at October 21, 2004 03:58 PM

Definitely the direct object. "I went 'Yay Sox'" is equivalent to "I said 'Yay Sox'", and 'Yay Sox' is the direct object in that case. It's filling the same role as snicker-snack, therefore snicker-snack is the direct object.

Posted by: rikchik at October 21, 2004 04:08 PM

Well. I am a linguist. So let's see here.

Doug's argument is interesting but not quite persuasive. It's true that go, in this sense of the word, requires an object. But the same is true of put in, say, John put the book on the shelf or John put the book where it belonged, as opposed to *John put. Linguists refer to put as "ditransitive"--that is, it requires two (non-subject) arguments, namely a theme (i.e. direct object) and a locative (i.e. some sort of locational phrase). Nevertheless, that doesn't make on the table or where it belonged a "noun".

Is go a variation on say in this case, as Tablesaw and Rikchilk argue? It's possible; both mean something like "to make the following sound" (and that sound can be a speech phrase or an onomatopoeia). But I'm not convinced. I hear a distinct difference in intonation between Rikchik {said/went}, "Yay Sox!" and The sword went snickersnack. As the comma indicates, the former has a pause between the verb of saying and the speech act, and the latter doesn't. Put that pause into the second sentence, and you suddenly have a talking sword.

What about an adverb? The appealing aspect of calling it an adverb is that, in this sense, go undergoes a natural sort of adverbial inversion. So, for instance (a dash indicates an acceptable sentence, a question mark a semi-acceptable sentence, and an asterisk indicates an unacceptable sentence):

- The boys ran quickly.
- Quickly ran the boys.

- The boys ate quickly.
? Quickly ate the boys.

- The boys ate cake.
* Cake ate the boys.

That's the pattern: adverbs, especially with verbs of motion, can invert. You get this a lot with locatives (e.g. Into the room came six men or Down the hill rolled Buttercup). Now, given that:

- The blade went snickersnack.
- Snickersnack went the blade.

- Rikchik went, "No way!"
? "No way!", went Rikchik.

It's complicated a little by the fact that English has "quotative inversion" (e.g. "I am coming to save you!" cried John), but I tend to find that unnatural at best in informal speech, and Snickersnack went the blade has none of that awkward feeling for me.

So I suspect that it really is an adverb. The original argument that it wasn't an adverb was that it can't "modify" any other verbs, even other verbs of sound-making. Which is fairly true, but then, language does things like that a lot. Devein doesn't really take anything as an object that isn't a shrimp, but it's no less a verb just because it has a strictly limited application. This is a little different--it requires a particular word, as opposed to any word with a very limited range of meaning (shrimp, prawn, sea-bug...)--but even that isn't really quite unique, I don't think. If I say I sleep heavily, the word "heavily" means something like "in such a way that it's hard to wake me up". Is that really the same word as in I ate heavily ("to a great extent")? I'm not sure that I sleep to a great extent; it's just hard to wake me up.

The real answer is that the eight parts of speech you learned in grammar school are woefully underequipped for actual language. (MW, for instance, thinks that is a conjunction in the sentence John said that he was tired--but can you put any other conjunction, like and or or there? The relationship between go and snickersnack isn't quite the traditional "adverb" relationship; it's more like the "soundmaking" relationship, and language will have as many of those as it cares to, gleefully ignoring grammarians.

Posted by: Lance at October 21, 2004 04:34 PM

"I went 'Yay Sox" is indeed colloquially equivalent to "I said 'Yay Sox," but that does not mean "I went 'Yay Sox'" is analogous to "I went snicker snack." One is a direct quotation and the other is a description of a sound/utterance. Intuitively we know that the sound made was not exactly "snicker snack" but instead some approximation of that (cf. moo, ribbit).
I see "go snicker snack" as a verb phrase that can be substituted with "I snicker snacked" quite happily (bearing in mind that colorless green ideas sleep furiously)--and the meaning is the same. Similarly, one can boom, bang, and aieeeee.
I would argue that "go" in these sorts of constructions is merely a copula, an instance of syntactic bloat, as with the copula "be." Or "the thing is, is that..." Which is what we like to do here in English. Can anyone explain why *that* is?

Posted by: Emily at October 21, 2004 04:56 PM

Up next, Just what were the mome raths doing?

Posted by: ugarte at October 21, 2004 05:33 PM

Some of the adverb arguments are reasonably persuasive, although I still feel like the OED is trying to pull a fast one on me. Does the OED also give adverbial definitions for other sound effects?

It feels like more of a stretch to find an intransitive sense of "go" which "with a snipping or clicking sound" can modify while keeping the sense of the sentence than to say that "go" means "making this sound here". It's true that we don't traditionally use quotation marks around sound effects in phrases like "The cow goes moo", but why does that necessarily indicate that it's an inherently different construct than "The cow goes, 'Moo' "? I mean, it's become common enough to write "John said goodbye" without using quotation marks.

Lance's point about sentence structure inversion is the most attractive argument for snicker-snack-as-adverb, although I feel that other transitive uses of "go" can be equally well inverted:

He went the long way.
The long way went he.

I don't suggest that "The long way went he" is a way anyone would ever naturally say that sentence, but it does maintain the meaning of the original sentence in a way that "Cake ate the boys" doesn't.

Perhaps it's just that "go" is a weird verb, and weird things happen around it, and we should just all enjoy the crazy Heisenbergian state of sound effects, constantly wavering between noun and adverb.

Posted by: Francis at October 21, 2004 11:58 PM

A few more observations:

First, there are people who have studied "The thing is, is that...." I'm not one of them; I have no idea why that happens in English.

But "go" isn't a copula. It's adding semantic content to the sentence, and it's not equating the sword with snickersnackocity in any way. The relation between "The sword snickersnacked" and "The sword went snickersnack" isn't the insertion of a copula into the former to get the latter; it's the verbing of the adverb in the latter to get the former. ("The child screamed" doesn't transform into "The child went scream"...)

A note on "go" and inversion: when "go" is a verb of motion, it inverts easily ("To the store went the boys"). But that's a fact about the adverbial construction coupled with motion, not a fact about the verb: you can't invert idioms (*Crazy went the man or *Far will go an ambitious man), nor other meanings of "go" (e.g. "die": John went peacefully vs *Peacefully went John; "fare": My interview went well vs. *Well went my interview; "resort": For the basis of his opinion, the judge went to the constitution vs. *For the basis of his opinion, to the constitution went the judge). This means that the verb in "The blade went snickersnack" has some sort of inherent motion, but I'm OK with that.

Posted by: Lance at October 22, 2004 01:53 AM

Vardibidian, if the 'piscine creatures of the sea' resemble fish but are not fish, not teleosts, as they would perhaps be in a science fiction book, then the phrase would be perfectly acceptable. Best to put the book back on the shelf then go find a dictionary to learn the precise meaning of 'piscine'.

Posted by: Neal Asher at November 23, 2004 03:57 AM